November 14, 2020
Any system of university exists to create an informed and capable public, not, as some neoconservative think-tanks might have you believe, as simply a mechanism for employment in service of the Great Economic Machine. What does it say about a culture when its brightest minds are busy tinkering away in colorful, infantilized office playgrounds, aimed narrowly at constructing marvelous contraptions for social addiction? In 2020, a year of century-defining global pandemic, does the world need more virtual mustaches, flirtatious extremism, and incessant interruption? That there exist corporations valued in the trillions headquartered in the same space where millions go hungry, relegated to sleeping on the street? I believe it says that only a privileged few ever really get a glimpse of the whole picture; only those who are sufficiently free from financial panic are granted the express freedom of true engagement with the perspective induced by academia. If every member of a society were to peer into the looking-glass, many would outright renounce their roles in the game.
How then, are the blinders applied to those of extraordinary intellect? Simply, the snake of industry has turned inward unto its own tail and inserted it promptly into its mouth. Corporations too often form with innocuous motives, acquire skilled members, find small success, and at this point rather than attempt to sustain that success, make morally dubious trade-offs in search of ever-greater success, repeating this vicious cycle until someone spots an inevitable systemic failure and escapes the sinking ship with armfuls of riches, leaving the rest of the crew to drown. Before that cataclysm, as the spiral grows, the enticement of the skilled laborer becomes more fiendish - salary, stock options and meeting-rooms stocked with beer and games, all serving the purpose of distracting a potential employee from their societal responsibility to return the knowledge bestowed upon them by the public school system to their peers! So efficient has this university-to-tech-industry pipeline become, we barely perceive the impropriety. You might feel it when you pass by the homeless and are faced with the juxtaposition that you and they are one in the same, yet you have a home and they have nothing, and you are primed with no social response to this dilemma. Silicon Valley, San Francisco, New York, insert tech hub here - all generating lighting-fast networks of unprecedented technical marvel and massive wealth alongside them. How can cities that scrape the sky be so unwilling to provide for their boots on the ground? Where are all the whiz-kids of pop-culture lore in the face of these problems?
Is this the purpose of higher education? Do we mean to siphon resources from public domain to public nuisance? Can Big Tech quantifiably prove that the unprecedented level of connection they provide enables a net-positive for our social psyche? In the past three decades, we have all but delegated the responsibility of these interrogations to the industry which itself seeks to profit from not responding. When we ask the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world if they can distinguish between poisoning the well and providing clean water, we are left on read.
Sometime in the last decade, while most of us were busy watching cat videos, the invisible tubes that bring us information were hijacked by a handful of profit-driven corporations. Unlike the prior owners of these tubes, these companies have no interest in providing a standardized, neutral “platform” by which anyone can “link” to and from disparate information publishers - a model which drives traffic away from the provider themself, thus earning no money. Instead, they seek to lure their users into pits of despair by prostituting journalism into the lowest common denominator of fear and disgust, serving up content deliberately calculated to cause anxiety, and dangling in front of us the shiny objects of desire, machine-curated with the compute power of entire nations for each and every one of us.
All of this - ALL of it - done without our express permission, and always to our individual and collective detriment. What happened here? It is of twisted irony that the incarceration capital of the world and birthplace of the most expedient information delivery network in history are one in the same. With one hand, we hastily confine millions of our own citizens for inhaling the smoke of naturally occurring flora, and in the name of freedom, we use the other to justify the unchecked propagation of conspiracy theories which actively jeopardize public safety. When “entrepreneurs” used racial minorities as slaves to build the great American railways to accumulate the wealth of small kingdoms and ensure their continued domination, albeit late, eventually a governing body stepped forward to reign in this atrocious abuse of power. If, beneath the festering pile of corporate lobbyists, the United States government retains any vestige of democracy, it will show itself now in reigning in the feudal lords of our darling web. If, after decades of capitalist conditioning, we citizens retain some semblance of self-worth, we will demand reallocation of intellectual wealth away from predatory data brokers and toward our collective well-being.